This holiday season is often marked by thankfulness and appreciation – starting with Thanksgiving in November and ending with New Year’s – as Americans look forward positively to the next year with renewed hope. Altruism, gratitude and a positive outlook on life all contribute to a happier person, but multiple studies are also showing it has an effect on health.
Far past anecdotal or “positive vibes” philosophies, scientists are finding that a positive and thankful outlook in everyday life actually has chemical, behavioral, and restorative powers.
One study by Dr. Yuchi Young, Ph.D., and Dr. Barbara Resnick, Ph.D., associated faster surgical recovery after a hip replacement in adults aged 65 years and over with a positive attitude. The purpose of the study was to find actionable steps medical staff could take to increase life-expectancy and quality of life because hip replacements cause “significant mortality, morbidity, and disability among older adults” with up to 33-percent dying within a year of the fracture.”
For the participants in the study, those that were satisfied with their recovery repeatedly noted that it was the positive care of the professionals in their case, the support of their family, a positive attitude, and self-determination.
“Participants noted that a major factor facilitating their recovery process was their own determination to walk again. Specifically, participants reported that they were determined to exercise and participate in physical activities as advised by medical professionals both during inpatient rehabilitation and after discharged to home,” the study said.
In contrast, for other participants that did not progress as quickly after the surgery, negative thoughts and attitude were attributed to the cause of such delays. These included factors such as subsequent falls after the surgery, a pessimistic attitude against recovery, and lack of support.
Citing the 2014 accident to former Olympic swimmer Amy Van Dyken, researchers said that while there may not always be a seemingly miraculous recovery just from thinking good thoughts, it does go a long way in the process.
“Where the huge difference comes in is with the recovery process,” said Dr. Mike Boniger, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Rehabilitation Institute. “You have to learn to deal with a body that doesn’t do what it used to do. You have to learn how to propel a wheelchair. You have to learn how to transfer, how to instruct a caregiver to help you. Every single thing you have to learn involves a challenge to you.”
So, it’s not just as easy as saying “think positive” to find a quick cure, as Philadelphia Psychologist Dr. Dan Gottlieb adds.
“…yes, attitude is everything. That said, you can’t wake up and say, ‘I’m going to have a good attitude.’ Who we are at the core doesn’t change,” he said.
A paper by Curtin University Professor Martin Haggar, a psychologist, found that people who viewed their illness as having fewer serious consequences on their life and felt in control tended to adopt a coping strategy that led to sticking to the treatment schedule and experiencing better outcomes.
“Broadly, the research suggests that what people think about their illness impacts on what they will do about it and, importantly, their recovery, or, at least, how well they manage their illness,” he wrote. “The study found people who view their illness as more serious and symptomatic and have strong negative emotions about it, were more likely to adopt avoidance or go into denial to cope. Those people are also more likely to experience depression and anxiety, and they are less likely to get better.”
Impact of Stress on Recovery
On the opposite side, researchers are finding psychological stress has a profound impact. One such study by Drs. Jean-Philippe Gouin and Janice K. Kiecolt-Glaser found that recovery from multiple surgery types was delayed by a negative attitude. They even found that patients who were more depressive were more likely to be readmitted to the hospital for infections and other symptoms.
The reason for this was that they found that chemicals our bodies put out that are key to healing were delayed by stress hormones.
Positive Thinking as Medicine
Dr. Robert A. Emmons, a professor of Psychology at the University of California Davis, is a leading researcher in Positive Psychology that has done in-depth study of the health effects of gratitude.
“Clinical trials indicate that the practice of gratitude can have dramatic and lasting effects in a person’s life,” he said. “It can lower blood pressure, improve immune function and facilitate more efficient sleep.”
In Emmons’ research, he says positive psychology is more than just thinking optimistically. His theory of practicing gratitude means taking active steps to show appreciation for the good things that come into a person’s life without their control. Emmons’ research, and other similar studies show that keeping a gratitude journal, writing a thank-you letter to someone who has helped you and directly thanking people for their help has a profound effect on health.
But, Emmons notes that being gracious, appreciative or thankful doesn’t come naturally to everyone.
“It is helpful to remember that it’s not really about feelings,” Emmons said. “Gratitude is a choice. We can choose to be grateful even when our emotions are steeped in hurt and resentment, or we would prefer our current life circumstances to be different.”
’Tis the Season
As the holiday season rolls in, it could be a good time to start living a life dedicated to gratitude. Researchers have also found that even though their studies were conducted over intervals of a few weeks or months depending on the study, the outlook of their subjects seemed to be ongoing past the term of the study.
“People’s happiness kept going up after the treatment phase, and if you’re familiar with clinical psychology studies, this never happens,” said Dr. Phillip Watkins of Eastern Washington University. “What we believe is happening is that it makes people look for the good in their life more, so it trains their attention to more good things.”